Tens of thousands of people marched in Spain’s Basque region on Saturday to protest the government policy of shipping separatist prisoners convicted of terror to jails far from their homes.
The protest came amid increasing speculation that the violent separatist Basque group ETA is mulling a permanent cease-fire.
At least 40,000 people carrying Basque flags and banners demonstrated peacefully in the northern city of Bilbao. They carried banners in the Basque language reading “Rights for the prisoners,””Amnesty” and “Return prisoners to the Basque country.”
ETA has been weakened by years of arrests and declining grass-roots support. Batasuna, ETA’s banned political wing, has called on the militants to renounce their 40-year armed struggle for an independent Basque homeland.
“Neither the return of prisoners nor the end to this conflict are going to happen overnight,” said separatist spokesman Inaki Olasolo, an indication that ETA was not yet ready to declare its final cease fire.
In September ETA announced its 11th cease-fire in its four decades of violence, but it did not mention the word permanent nor did it say it would be prepared to destroy its stockpile of arms.
Spain’s government has repeatedly said progress in the troubled northern region will only come about when ETA renounces violence for good.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero rejected September’s cease-fire announcement, describing it as militant’s gambit to buy time, regroup and rearm.
ETA’s last deadly attack was a July 2009 car bomb that killed two policemen on the island of Mallorca. The group is considered a terrorist organization by Spain, the European Union and the United States and has killed more than 825 people since the late 1960s.
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